The basic premise of England’s youth international teams is that they showcase the best young English players.
For many years they showcased Wayne Routledge, the nomadic talent who rolled up at Swansea City last season.
Crystal Palace discovered and nurtured Routledge but his international representation was a problem for them. Their chairman at the time, Simon Jordan, tells the story of how Palace “sent Wayne away on an England Under-17 trip without an agent and he came back covered in Paul Stretford.” A while later, aged 20, the midfielder joined Tottenham Hotspur for a tribunal-set fee.
Jordan blamed the Football Association for that, saying they allowed “agents to get to young players when they’re in loco parentis.” As it happens, Tom Lees recently employed a new agency to represent him though not as a result of his appearance in the England Under-21 squad.
But where England are concerned, their handling of Leeds United’s centre-back was as conscientious as any Championship club could expect it to be.
At the rate he is going, Lees will wake up one day and think of himself as a Premier League footballer. It’s a simple matter of ambition and an inevitability when your appreciation society includes Norman Hunter, Stuart Pearce and Neil Warnock. Unlike Jonathan Howson or Fabian Delph – the most recent Leeds players to play for England at Under-21 level – United can only hope they are already there by the time he does. He falls into the category of players-primed-for-predators-to-attack.
The contract given to him by United at the start of this summer is a powerful way of shooting the crows. English players are naturally expensive and longer contracts hike up the price, a fact proven by several in Pearce’s Under-21 squad: Jordan Henderson, Jack Rodwell, Connor Wickham. Their combined value is some £42million.
Wickham, the striker who Lees’ replaced on his Under-21 debut on Monday, cost £12m when he left Ipswich Town for Sunderland, largely because of his talent at a young age but also because he was under contract at Portman Road until 2014. Lees’ deal runs to 2016 and Leeds retained an option to extend it for an additional year. Theirs has the potential to be a long, productive relationship. “I could see him being a big player for Leeds for many years,” said Hunter last week. “He’s one the club must hang on to.”
That is hardly news to the club. They have given Lees no fewer than three contract extensions since he turned professional in 2009, the most recently edging his salary closer to those of the higher earners at Leeds. When it comes to their personal treatment of Lees, United have done their bit. But it helps no end to hear Pearce depicting Lees’ first call-up as a direct result of his involvement in the Championship.
Asked about the 21-year-old, Pearce told the YEP: “The one thing Tom’s got compared to others in my squad is that he’s playing regularly for his club.” Or indeed, playing at all. The defenders selected by Pearce earlier this month included Adam Smith who, much like his ill-conceived loan at Leeds last season, is barely scratching the surface at Spurs. Likewise Steven Caulker and Danny Rose, who is in the same boat at the same club and recently joined Sunderland on loan. It is no surprise that Pearce likes the cut of Lees’ jib: an active and thriving defender at a competitive level of the English leagues. All being well, the European Under-21 Championship will be upon England in less than a year’s time.
There have been times in the past when players who sought to move on from Leeds did so with justification. Delph was too precocious a talent to be locked in League One. That his progression at Aston Villa has been so slow is to some extent a legacy of the knee injury he suffered in 2010, but the theory of the transfer made sense. So too those taken by Howson and Robert Snodgrass. Norwich City might be relegated from the Premier League this season but at least they have the chance to fight the odds and mingle in more talented company while they do. Little wonder if both players were tired of being asked to sit tight and reach the Premier League when Leeds finally do.
But the Championship has been good for Lees and is serving him well still. The credit for his Under-21 cap is owed primarily to his own performance – to these eyes as good as that of any Leeds player last month – but there are other factors too: his willingness to spend two seasons away from Elland Road on loan and the consistency of both Warnock and Simon Grayson in playing him in the Championship. Pearce called him up late last week for no other reason than a gnawing desire to give Lees a chance. He had evidently to run out of reasons to leave the defender at home.
There is a lesson here for academy players in general and those at Thorp Arch in particular, some of whom will have their allegiance tested by the chinks in the armour of Football League clubs created by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). For all the appeal of the Premier League, it is only a worthwhile target when the time, the setting and the circumstances are right. One train of thought says Lees would have earned his Under-21 debut long ago had he been a Premier League player, just as Caulker and others did.
But he would have done so without the domestic experience or the proven record. He would not be the more complete package he is now.
Warnock seems to know where Lees’ allegiance lies. “We’re at a stage where all of the players who are here want to be here,” Warnock said. “I don’t have worries about any of them.”
It is an obvious formula: meet the realistic wishes of those younger players who are worth the investment and the most sensible will stick around and grow. Jordan had it right. “Our only card to stop them walking away,” he said far back in 2005, “is to teach common sense and loyalty – old fashioned I know – and hope it hits home. We make youngsters feel valued, part of the set-up and show them how many more opportunities they’ll get with Palace than they would at any of the top five.”
Routledge said no to that and drifted for several years at Spurs. Lees’ Under-21 cap is a triumph of traditional development and recompense for his own maturity. Leeds are bound to tell him that he’s in the right place. It’s what clubs do.
But that claim holds more water when it comes with Pearce’s endorsement. Is the grass greener? Not in Pearce’s view, or not at the moment. It is the sort of message United’s academy constantly needs.